America’s politics are undergoing their most dramatic shift in over a generation; the United States is now a center-left country. Nothing shows this more than the dramatic entry of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, into the race for the Democratic nomination for President.
Sanders, a self-avowed socialist, has attracted a lot of attention, and he claims to have raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours of his run. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sanders promised to make aggressive attacks on Wall Street and increased regulation of the financial industry the centerpiece of his campaign.
“We need a political revolution in this country involving millions of people who are prepared to stand up and say enough is enough, and I want to lead that,” Sanders said on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “For the last 30 years I’ve been standing up for the working families of this country and I think I’m the only candidate who’s prepared to take on the billionaire class which now controls our economy and increasingly controls the political life of this country.”
“The American people do not want an economy dominated by a handful of gigantic Wall Street firms who live in their own world,” Sanders told The Post. “These guys have engaged in a whole lot of illegal activity and highly complicated financial tools designed to enrich themselves. That has gotta be broken.”
During The Post interview, Sanders outlined a very left wing agenda that includes new restrictions on Wall Street, a transaction tax on investments, an end to free trade, and a carbon tax. Sanders was also very public with his agenda on This Week.
Sanders’ discussion with Stephanopoulos revealed how left wing he is. What’s interesting is that he made some statements that would have been unthinkable for an American politician just a few years ago.
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“If we know that in countries in Scandinavia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries,” Sanders said when asked about social democracy”—the voter turnout is a lot higher than in the United States—and in those countries healthcare is a right, college education and graduate school is free, retirement benefits and childcare benefits are stronger…and in those countries government works for ordinary people and the middle class rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaires.”
“I can see the Republican attack ad right now,” Stephanopoulos said. “He wants America to look more like Scandinavia.”
“That’s right,” Sanders retorted. “That’s right. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong when they have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, a higher minimum wage than we do? They’re stronger on the environment than we are.”
What’s truly interesting is that agenda is attracting a lot of attention. Sanders seems to have sparked a grass roots movement that could become as popular, as influential, and as disruptive as the Tea Party. Sanders also claimed that 100,000 volunteers also had signed up for its campaign in its first 24 hours and sent in 35,000 donations. If that’s true, Sanders is a serious contender who could derail Hillary Clinton’s centrist juggernaut.
The Unthinkable Becomes Real
What’s truly interesting is that the presence of someone as leftwing as Sanders in the Democratic presidential race would have unthinkable just 10 years ago.
Today both Sanders and the most popular alternative to Hillary, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), are very leftwing. Both Sanders and Warren have expressed views that are well to the left of mainstream Democrats like President Obama. Yet both seem to be accepted as part of the mainstream.
Nor is it just Sanders; some Republican presidential hopefuls, including Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), have been spouting some decidedly populist rhetoric of late. Hillary too has become something of a populist and has begun attacking Wall Street.
Kasich, a former Lehman Brothers executive, was even knocking Wall Street greed on the campaign trail, The Guardian noted.
“Wall Street is necessary because it helps move the financial operations of America forward, but I’ll tell you the problem with Wall Street: it is too much about ‘I gotta make money’,” Kasich said. “There’s too much greed. And that’s just part of what happens there.”
Politicians would not be talking like that if they did not think it would reverberate with voters. Nor would a shrewd politico like Bernie Sanders take a risk like a presidential run if he did not think he could make a difference. Note: I don’t think Sanders thinks he can win; instead, he wants to imitate Barry Goldwater and move his party to a new place. Goldwater famously dragged the Republicans to the right and legitimatized modern conservatism with his quixotic presidential run in 1964.
Why America Is Moving to the Left
Naturally, many people who are used to thinking of America as a conservative or center right country are confused by this. They should not be, because America is slowly becoming a center left country.
Historically, the United States has been centrist, but it has always leaned right or left. During the mid to late 20th Century, the decades from the 1930s through 1970, America was center left. Even Republicans like Dwight D. Eisenhower embraced big government and the welfare state. During the late 20th and early 21st Centuries—the decades from 1970 to 2010—America was center right. Even Democrats like Bill Clinton were pro-business and constantly employing small government rhetoric.
Now the pendulum seems to have swung back to the left, and that will have some interesting consequences. We’re likely to see higher taxes, more regulation of business and an expanded welfare state in the near future.
Some observers will be wondering why America is moving to the left. There are a few reasons for this, including:
- The great Economic Meltdown of 2008, which destroyed the economic security or illusion of economic security for many families and individuals. As the recent rise in foreclosures indicates, many Americans have not recovered from that catastrophe.
- A large portion of the population that is now dependent upon government programs like Food Stamps and Unemployment Insurance for survival.
- Increasing income inequality, which has convinced many Americans that the economy does not work or does not work for them.
- An aging population that is increasingly dependent on government programs like Medicare and Social Security.
- A growing awareness of poverty and its destructive effects on the nation.
- It has been a generation since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. That means we now have a generation of Americans that does not see socialism as a threat to democracy and freedom. Instead, they view socialism through the lens of social democratic nations like Australia, Germany and Finland.
- The insecure position that the middle class finds itself in.
- Popular frustration at growing wealth and displays of wealth at a time when many families are struggling to survive.
My prediction is that Bernie Sanders is simply the beginning of a shift in American politics. Expect the United States to move dramatically to the left in the next few years and many government policies that would be unthinkable a decade ago to become law.
My guess is that we will see a grassroots social democratic movement appear in the Democratic Party. That movement will drag the Democrats to the left much as the Tea Party has pushed Republicans to the right. One result of this will be that our politics will become more polarized than ever before as America drifts leftward.